Thirty-eight years ago tonight, Phish took the stage for the first time ever at the University of Vermont’s Harris/Millis Cafeteria in Burlington. The group at the time consisted of guitarists Trey Anastasio and Jeff Holdsworth, drummer Jon Fishman and bassist Mike Gordon. Little did the handful of attendees know that more than three decades later the band would still be going strong.
The quartet (Holdsworth left the band in 1986, one year after keyboardist Page McConnell joined) spent their formative years performing in Vermont and writing a number of songs which remain staples of the repertoire to this day. In 1988, Phish made a trip to Colorado and started playing shows around the Northeast. The group steadily built a devoted following and toured extensively from 1989 – 1994, a year that saw exponential growth in the fanbase as in New York City they went from selling out the 2,894-capacity Beacon Theatre in April to filling the much larger Madison Square Garden in December. After taking the first five months of 1995 off the road, Phish spent most of the rest of the year on tour.
With each passing tour, the band’s sound evolved and 1997 saw Phish work what they described as “cow funk” into their jams. Phish began a number of traditions in the mid-1990s such as throwing their own festivals and performing a “musical costume” on Halloween. The band ended 1999 with the biggest Millennium Eve celebration on earth, as they drew over 75,000 fans to Big Cypress in Florida’s Everglades for a festival that ended with a set that ran from midnight through sunrise.
Phish took a hiatus following Fall Tour 2000 and returned to the stage at Madison Square Garden on December 31, 2002. Less than two years later the band broke up. The breakup lasted nearly five years and ended with a three-night run at Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia that spanned March 6 – 8, 2009. Phish has toured regularly ever since and fit in a handful of festivals and performances of “musical costumes.” The group released 15 studios albums over the years, the most recent of which was 2020’s Sigma Oasis. Phish returns to the stage to kick off a four-night New Year’s Run at Madison Square Garden in New York City on December 29.
While Phish hasn’t been big on looking back as they focused on moving forward, they did make an exception on New Year’s Eve ’13/’14 when they simulated that first gig by performing “in-the-round” atop a truck at Madison Square Garden. The band even tipped their proverbial hats towards their first show by using hockey sticks as microphone stands as they did that night. Late in the evening, a wonderful video montage containing highlights from the first 30 years of Phish was aired on the venue’s scoreboard. Take a look:
On December 2, 2003 Phish displayed a 20-year video montage on the screens at The Fleet Center in Boston during setbreak of their 20th Anniversary Concert. Check that one out:
Now, getting back to that first Phish gig from 38 years ago, about 17 minutes worth of audio from that performance circulates. Listen:
Phish archivist Kevin Shapiro shared his notes on “Show #1” via Phish.com:
This was Phish’s (Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, Mike Gordon and Jeff Holdsworth) 1st show – a semi formal Christmas dance in Mike’s dorm commonly mistaken by the band to be 10/30/83 (including in the Phish book, Bittersweet Motel and onstage 10/30/98). A hockey stick was used as a microphone stand. This show included the 1st performances of: Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress (The Hollies cover sung by Jeff), Proud Mary (John Fogerty/Creedence Clearwater Revival cover sung by Trey), In The Midnight Hour (Wilson Pickett cover sung by Jeff), Squeeze Box (The Who cover sung by Trey), Roadhouse Blues (The Doors cover sung by Jeff), Scarlet Begonias (Grateful Dead cover sung by Trey), and Fire On The Mountain (Grateful Dead cover sung by Trey). The “soundcheck” jam was performed in front of the audience. Happy Birthday was sung by Trey to Sue three times before the band took a long break. After the break, Trey said something like “you guys are so excited about our music” and bantered with Sue in a friendly confrontation. Someone put a Michael Jackson “Thriller” tape on the stereo and Trey played drums along to Billy Jean and Human Nature. After teasing Good Lovin’ and Beat It, Trey said “Big surprise now, more Michael Jackson” and noodled around a bit more before the show and recording ended. It’s worth noting that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video was released on this day. Legend had it that the name, Blackwood Convention was used for this show and at least one other early gig, but Trey and Fish cleared that up in a 12/3/19 Phish Radio interview where Trey said “We were never called f*cking Blackwood Convention.”
Here’s to many more anniversaries for Phish.
[Originally Published: December 2, 2019]